Oklahoma City hit another pothole on its bumpy road Sunday when the Thunder announced that Kevin Durant has undergone a procedure to address "increased soreness" in his surgically repaired right foot.
Thunder GM Sam Presti said in a statement that the procedure would "address irritation from the screw" that was inserted into Durant's foot during an earlier surgery and that it would "make an adjustment to a different piece of hardware within the foot" in hopes of reducing Durant's soreness. The statement also stressed that Durant's fracture, which sidelined him for the first month of the season, is "healing excellently."
The reigning MVP will miss at least a week, but it's not yet known how long he will remain sidelined. Durant is expected to return this season.
While this isn't a season-ending catastrophe, it's certainly a deflating turn of events for a Thunder team that was looking to charge hard into the postseason. Presti had just orchestrated a roster shakeup on Thursday, shipping out both Reggie Jackson and Kendrick Perkins while adding Enes Kanter, DJ Augustin, Kyle Singler and Steve Novak. Now, coach Scott Brooks will be forced to begin integrating those new pieces without Durant, his most important player, and starting center Steven Adams, who is sidelined with a hand injury.
Durant's general frustration was a major talking point of All-Star Weekend, and surely his ongoing injuries are far more aggravating than silly questions from media members. Entering this season, Durant had missed just six games combined over the previous five seasons. This year, he hasn't been able to string together even one month of games thanks to ongoing foot and ankle problems. Durant scored just three points on 1-for-3 shooting during the All-Star Game, and he managed just 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting in his first game back after the break, a win over the Mavericks on Thursday. He then sat out Oklahoma City's win over Charlotte on Saturday due to ongoing soreness in his foot.
The timing here is obviously unfortunate. Oklahoma City has finally climbed into the West's eighth spot, but it must fend off Phoenix and New Orleans for the right to play Golden State in the first round, a tough task indeed. The Thunder surely harbored hopes of riding Durant and Russell Westbrook, plus their newfound depth, to a late-season push up the standings and a more favorable matchup. That window could easily squeeze shut if Durant is sidelined for an extended period of time, as the Thunder are already six games behind the Mavericks (No. 6) and four games behind the Spurs (No. 7). Now, Oklahoma City is left hoping that Westbrook's excellent play recently, an accommodating schedule, and helpful external factors (Phoenix shaking up its core at the deadline, New Orleans dealing with injuries to Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson) will be enough to help it maintain its current position.
As if there were any question as to Durant's central importance to the effort, Oklahoma City is 18-9 (.667) with him in the lineup and 12-16 (.429) without him. He's also posted a +7.2 net rating this year, improving his team's offense (from 100.3 rating without him to 106.7 with him) and defense (from 101.5 rating without him to 99.5 rating with him). With Durant, Oklahoma City has a shot to beat anyone in the league; without him, it has an excellent chance to be eliminated by any of the West's playoff teams in the first round.
Building continuity among so many new pieces was already going to be a challenge for the Thunder with Durant, and now that becomes a two-step process. First, everyone must get settled. Brooks will look to make do with Singler as his stand-in starter; midseason addition Dion Waiters and offseason signing Anthony Morrow are also able to give minutes. Then, everyone must find out how they fit into life with the league's premier scorer after Durant's return.
With all these moving parts to consider, it's easy to overlook how valuable a little pre-playoffs stability would have been for Durant himself. This year, the six-time All-Star is still averaging 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, while shooting a sparkling 51 percent overall and 40.3 percent from deep, but he had only just begun playing his usual minutes load at the beginning of January. Durant has averaged at least 38 minutes per game in each of the last six years; this year, he's played 38+ minutes only eight times. Last year, Durant scored 30+ points in 47 of his 81 appearances; this year, he's topped that mark, which has long been routine for him, just eight times all season.
Durant, like the Thunder, needed the next six or seven weeks to generate significant momentum and to return to his full, outstanding form. Any sidetracking from that purpose, even if it winds up being a modest delay, will take a real toll.